Monday, November 23, 2009
Matteo Garrone’s masterwork Gomorrah is notable for what it is not. There is no macho camaraderie amongst thugs in social clubs as seen on The Sopranos. And there is nothing romantic about ‘the life’ of mobsters. While American audiences have been accustomed to the portrayal of gangsters having facile access to money, power and women with seeming impunity, they will be treated to a coarser, realistic depiction of the Naples crime syndicate known as the Camorra. Based on the eponymously named novel by Roberto Saviano, Garrone’s film bears more than a passing resemblance to socio-economic and cultural milieu of Luis Bunuel’s Los Olvidados and Fernando Meirelles’s City of God, where squalor, death and hopelessness reign with no end in sight.
Five non-interrelated storylines take place in a colorless, prison-like Neapolitan housing project, itself a fiefdom of rival Camorra gangs. There is Pasquale, the fashion tailor (Salvatore Cantalupo), two young wannabes, Ciro and Marco (Ciro Petrone and Marco Macor), Franco, the waste management specialist (Toni Servillo), Don Ciro, the mob-bagman (Gianfelice Imparato) and Toto, the small associate (Salvatore Abruzzese). Each attempts to get on with their lives, knowing full well, there is no escaping from the tentacles of the Camorra, which influences every single one of their choices. None of the characters will have serendipitous encounters with each other and none can run to the government, which is noticeably absent, as is perhaps God in this part of the world. Each accepts as a fact of life, the Camorra as omnipresent and omnipotent. Either work with evil or be eliminated. Gomorrah focuses on the attempts of the victims to do what they must despite it all. Wider American audiences may not take to the lack of Hollywood flash in the film, but it will give them pause to think. They will think about the social conditions in which so many people live and shame the government into taking decisive action against organized crime.
The most fascinating of the DVD extras is the 60-minute segment entitled Five Stories, providing the behind scenes making of documentary for each of the five storylines. The doc’s camera sits back and records Garrone’s interaction with the cast, many of whom come from the slums depicted in the movie. Behind the camera, we can see Garrone giving many liberties to his actors to improvise both their dialogue and movements and to go with what feels real. Director Garrone cast for people deeply rooted to Naples and even according to their physiological appearances of the parts they played. But it is in casting non-professional actors, some of whom have more than a passing knowledge of organized crime, that gives Gomorrah its power. Take for example the most interesting segment of the Five Stories involving Ciro and Marco, the two young wannabes. They aspire to be like Tony Montana, naively thinking they can be independent of the Camorra and end up stealing a large cache of automatic weapons from one of the local crime factions. The man, from whom they steal, is in fact a real Camorra gangster, played by the boorish Giovanni Venosa, who would later be arrested after the film wrapped. The director reassures Ciro and Marco that the mobsters for the penultimate shot of the film won’t really hurt them. After all, these aren’t just actors.
Other extras include various deleted scenes along with interviews with author Roberto Saviano describing his first hand reporting experiences while living in the northern ghettos of Naples where the stories took place. Now he lives in the Witness Protection Program for having named names. One can only hope someone will take notice of this tragedy.
Gomorrah will be released by Criterion Collection this week.
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For his debut feature Tom Quinn took the hours of footage he shot of family and friends talking about dealing with divorce for a psych class as inspiration to create a touching story that meshes domestic issues with the culture of his native South Philadelphia.
After placing 13th in Philadelphia's Mummers Parade, which is held every New Year's Day where local clubs in elaborate costumes compete for prizes and bragging rights, the South Philadelphia String Band are stuck in a rut as their losing ways have gone on for decades now. For Mike (Andrew Conway) and his son Jack (Greg Lyons) the pain doesn't subside when they head home. Mike and his wife Lisa (MaryAnn McDonald) are separated and Jack and his younger sister Kat (Jennifer Welsh) are just starting to feel the tear in the family.
With a gritty handheld look, shot by Quinn, and great performances by Lyons and Welsh, the film follows a year in the life of the family as they struggle to stay together and Mike and Jack try to bring the string band back to its prominence. Quinn uses real Mummers and engrosses us in their community to create an authentic piece of regional filmmaking.
Along with directing and shooting, Quinn, a 25 New Faces alumni, also wrote the screenplay, edited, and produced the film (along with Steve Beal). Winner of the Grand Prize award at Slamdance in 2008, The New Year Parade was also nominated for our "Best Film Not Playing at a Theater Near You" award at the Gotham Independent Film Awards the same year.
Features include Quinn's interviews he conduced of people who have gone through their parents getting divorced, a making-of piece, and a history of the South Philadelphia String Band and the Mummers.
Carnivalesque Films releases the DVD this week.
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Tuesday, November 10, 2009
As he did in making his debut feature Ballast, Lance Hammer ignored all the conventional rules when he released the film last year. Originally slated to be opened by IFC Films, Hammer -- known best for his work in the visual effects department of Hollywood pictures like the Batman films of the Joel Schumacher era -- rethought his decision and came to the conclusion that it would be better to self distribute the film. Though the attention of his dramatic move led to more ink about the self-distribution/DIY model than any other time in recent memory, it's still hard to determine if it was the best move for Ballast (and this isn't the proper forum to explore that).
The film received instant respect from critics when it played at Sundance in 2008 and walked away with the awards for Director and Cinematography (for the splendid handheld 35mm camera work of d.p. Lol Crawley). It highlighted a different type of Sundance film as Hammer wasn't looking for a meal ticket to bigger-budgeted filmmaking. With no score, using untrained or unknown actors and a European aesthetic influenced by the works of the Dardenne brothers and Robert Bresson, in some ways Ballast is a blueprint of the recession-era filmmaking we're currently in -- a film that can find attention without the backing of the now extinct mini-major distributor.
Exploring the splintered relationship of a family living in the Mississippi Delta, we come into the story at the family's lowest point. Twin brothers, Lawrence (Michael J. Smith Sr.) and Darrius, are in a rut and Darrius has committed suicide. Lawrence is soon to follow but a neighbor, who has found Darrius, hears the gunshot Lawrence has inflicted on himself and gets him help. Lawrence awakens ten days later to return home alone to a two house property he and his brother shared.
Hammer then moves his attention to Darrius's widow Marlee (Tarra Riggs) and her son James (JimMyron Ross). We learn Marlee was into drugs and might have drove Darrius away. She's now trying to repair her life while in the mean time James is left to fend for himself, spending his time playing video games and hanging with drug dealers.
Darrius's death forces the three to come back together and through time the relationship begins to mend. But Hammer doesn't spoon feed sappy moments or heartfelt apologies. Instead the film (which warrants multiple viewings not just to marvel at the gorgeous visuals, but catch the plot points) gives a tone and mood similar to the season in the Delta. Dreary and cold with the hope of brighter days to come.
Disc includes an essay from Amy Taubin, and a breakdown of the improvisations of some of the key scenes in the film. Sadly, there isn't a director commentary or feature on the film's cinematography. Hopefully that will come in a future version.
Kino releases the DVD today.
Subscribe now for a digital issue to read our interview with Hammer in the Fall 2008 issue.
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